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Stick It: Bumper stickers, the tackiest trend

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Photo by Tooele Gun Club.

I always believed that the ultimate expression of yourself on the roads of our great nation was embodied by the kind of car/truck/vehicle you drove. Building up a Mercury Montego with an overdrive trans, four-wheel disc brakes and a carbon-fiber front-bumper means that I wished to be individual at any cost. (My ’64 Dodge Dart convertible–sunny, fun, inviting opinion from all observers–is a bit of a ruse in this regard, and as a crusty, recalcitrant navel-gazer I decided it wasn’t me after all. The Nissan S-Cargo that replaced it was a far better fit, both metaphorically and physically.) Is it possible to drive a VW Microbus without some sort of Grateful Dead, anti-war or hippie-tinged sticker or slogan plastered on it somewhere? (Maybe, now that these are $100,000 vans when restored right.) Drive an SRT-badged Mopar, and your intentions are pretty clear. Drive a ’98 Pontiac Grand Am with mismatched body panels, and likely you can’t afford anything else, or don’t care enough about cars to drive anything more interesting.

Apparently, I am in the minority in this opinion, because since time immemorial people have chosen to spell it out for me–in the form of signs and stickers plastered all over their car’s hinders.

Before all, there was the dealership tag from the shills that sold you your car, often screwed into the trunklid, though later these became decals. More progressive dealerships were early adopters of the license plate frame, which are standard issue these days. I remember a boss who had just taken possession of a Hummer H2, paying extra money for an external spare tire cover, and his complete annoyance at the three-foot-round advertisement that the local dealer had painted on it. “I paid for a free ad?” he once asked rhetorically.

But that’s mere commerce. There are those who require words to say what their vehicles cannot.

First, there were bumper stickers. Advertisements, wise-guy comedy, and political affiliations were largely pronounced opinions that could have just as easily been expressed with the right choice of car. But bumper stickers fade and tatter, much like the timeliness of many of the sentiments they expressed. He was once given a bumper sticker at Freehold Volkswagen in New Jersey, back when it was still called Freehold Volkswagen: a blue thing with a white VW logo and the helpful message: “Saves Gas.” He left it in a stack of papers in our basement, never to be applied.

Murals were a more artistic extension of this; the cars-as-canvas approach is generally limited to vans of a certain era, but there are sad exceptions. I know of a perfectly delightful low-mileage muscle car that was desecrated by an owner who decided it needed to be a rolling tribute to his favorite rock guitarist. The only thing more shocking than the visual embodiments of cliché’d rock lyrics airbrushed on the hood and doors of a muscle car were the gaggle of topless groupies/nymphs/mermaids that adorn the trunk. The news that this happened in 1978 does not discourage the chills.

Growing up in the Northeast, bumper stickers followed a theme: local AM radio stations that were giving away prizes; “Virginia is for Lovers;” the “South of the Border” tourist-trap, I mean gift shop; and the inevitable “I (heart) NY,” part of the widespread ad campaign designed to try and make you forget about the peep show booths, garbage strikes, and general malaise. The I (heart) campaign was inevitably copied, frequently with pictures of dogs: “I Love Schnauzers,” or whatever your favorite breed happened to be. And then came the genius of the Screw Kit: a series of stickers (in a variety of sizes) featuring illustrated Phillips-headed hardware, designed to be placed over the hearts of whatever it was you happened to love. Recalcitrant vandals in a parking lot could have you doing the most terrible things to that poor Schnauzer in no time flat, and you might not even realize it until you questioned the peals of laughter that followed you everywhere.

By the early ’80s, bumper stickers and murals had played themselves out. Oh, they still existed, but their use shrank dramatically. Seemingly overnight, and in its place, was the waving hand. Remember these? A wire, a suction cup, and a day-glo piece of plastic shaped like a hand, which stuck to a window and swung back and forth saying hello to everyone you drove by, whether you’re paying attention to them or not. Some had little messages. All were played out within about four seconds. As a bonus, these had the added attraction of taking up space meant to be used for visibility. You know, seeing out of. I’m waving hello as I run you over in the street.

The waving hands evolved into a trend that either lasted longer than many others or else only felt like it: “Baby on Board” signs. Four-inches square or so, mounted in a diamond shape via suction cups, imploring me to watch my step because someone else submitted to their genetic imperative and spawned. Of course, these too mutated, and ultimately the pithy “Who Cares Who’s On Board,” appeared, signaling that the shark had well and truly been jumped. Meantime, a nation wondered: Will a four-inch-square yellow sign in your window somehow make me drive more safely? Might the extra visibility gained from not having a sign smack in the middle of your vision be a safer way to take care of that baby on board?

Bumper stickers made a reappearance later in the ’80s, and continue through to this day on the minivans and sport-utes of America. You might as well have a sticker that reads “My kid’s a geek” and draw a target on your back window. A similar sentiment, all grown up, came from parents scraping to send their kids through school, who took pride in their home refinancing and crushing debt by plastering the name of their child’s school centered in the back window. CHMSLs took a bite out of that business. Thank heavens.

Then young toe-headed Calvin, the protagonist of Bill Watterston’s seminal and much-missed comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, appeared en masse to relieve himself on something; his target usually had something to do with the vehicle that Calvin was stuck to. Chevy owners directed Calvin to take care of his business on a Ford oval, Mopar fans let Calvin unload on everyone else, and so on. It was the sad evolution of Jeff Foxworthy’s joke about the Ford vs Chevy-stoked fistfights at monster-truck events. Two of my favorites: the owner of a Toyota who had Calvin taking care of business on block letters that spelled out “TOYOTA,” and another one that had Calvin going on, ahem, “foreign imports.” (Thankfully, domestic imports remain safe from Calvin’s stream-of-unconsciousness.) Calvin remains in favor, despite the cartoon barely being in the memory of those who are just turning of driving age.

Bullet-hole decals came in around the same time–New millenium-ish, give or take a couple of seasons. They are black holes, much like the minds of those who are amused by these, except the stickers are flecked with grey matter at the edges. At first blush, perhaps, they evoked double-takes and smiles. After the fourth time, you’ve seen them…meh. These express what, exactly? That you’re mad, bad, and dangerous to know? That you’re on the run? That you escaped from Baghdad, or perhaps Compton? That you park next to schmucks who open their doors into your fenders and you can’t afford Painless Dent Removal to straighten your sheetmetal?

Wraps came next. Having spent some quality time in a vehicle so festooned, I can safely report that while the treatment keeps out the sun and keeps the cabin cool, it also creates eyestrain while looking in your mirrors, so much so that it becomes impossible to identify things behind you that you really ought to identify back there. Like police cars. As a bonus, covered side-windows will unpeel themselves in case you want to roll the windows up and down to improve visibility. At night, rearward visibility drops further.

Then, there were stick figures, one for each member of the family. Invariably, there are five or six lined up along the back window, including pets, often with names below each to identify who’s who. Sadly, this tells me all the wrong things. Like, here’s a beacon for child molesters. (Get the whole family’s first names without asking a question, isolate one of the kids somewhere, and that’s that.)

What’s next, beyond the inevitable ever-angrier political bumper stickers whose shelf life invariably lasts beyond the candidate’s campaign/term in office, and the Coexist stickers meant to (read: failing to) diffuse that anger?

I don’t know, but I’m going to go take a drive in my Nissan Skyline GT-R to let everyone know about my impending midlife crisis.